"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Fake News And The Myth Of Fact–Nothing Is What It Seems

Reality is a tricky business.   Philosophers from Aristotle to Paul Weiss have considered the nature of reality, whether such a thing exists, and how meaning can be derived from what may be fictitious.  Phenomenologists like Bishop Berkeley even suggested that reality is created by perception – i.e.  only if a tree falls in the forest someone is there to hear it fall does the sound of its falling exist.

Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them, and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners' reality.

The  philosophy of Kierkegaard resembles that expressed by McCarthy, at least until McCarthy’s final epiphany of grace. One of Kierkegaard's recurrent themes is the importance of subjectivity, which has to do with the way people relate themselves to (objective) truths. In Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, he argues that "subjectivity is truth" and "truth is subjectivity."

What he means by this is that most essentially, truth is not just a matter of discovering objective facts. While objective facts are important, there is a second and more crucial element of truth, which involves how one relates oneself to those matters of fact. Since how one acts is, from the ethical perspective, more important than any matter of fact, truth is to be found in subjectivity rather than objectivity (Hong, Howard and Edna, The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard, Vol. IV)
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Browning, Kurosawa, and Durrell have written novels and screenplays which tell the same story from different perspectives.  The architecture of the story – place, time, season – may be agreed upon, but little else.  Memory itself is only fill-in, fractions of what actually might have happened, and larger segments added by others; so not only might four people have different impressions of what happened on a given day, but their own impressions might be little more than quilted memories.

People they remember may or may not have been there, said what they were supposed to have said, or acted according to what was remembered.  By listening to the accounts of all four, one may have an impression of what might have happened, but no certainty that it did.

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Social psychologists after decades of research have concluded what we instinctively understand – eye-witness accounts are no more than validation of personal perceptions.  We see what we want to see and nothing more. In experiment after experiment, different observers of the same event perceive it differently.  A big family Christmas dinner is the best example.  The exploits of Uncle Harry are told and retold, but never the same way twice.  Each relative remembers the incidents differently, and after the telling of many versions, Uncle Harry’s adventures are far from what he ever even imagined doing.

Scholarly research into the nature of memory has shown that the process of reconstructing past events is dependent on many different parts and functions of the brain; and by the time the memory is assembled, it may have little to do with reality.
Memory is never a literal recount of past experiences, rather it is dependent on the constructive processes present at the time of Encoding that are subject to potential errors and distortions. Essentially, the constructive memory process functions by encoding the patterns of physical characteristics that are perceived by the individual, as well as the interpretive conceptual and semantic functions that act in response to the incoming information.
During the recall of Episodic memory, the information that a person remembers is usually limited in scope, ultimately giving an incomplete recollection of an event. By employing reconstructive processes, individuals supplement other aspects of available personal knowledge into the gaps found in episodic memory in order to provide a fuller and more coherent version, albeit one that is often distorted.
Scott Fraser, a forensic psychologist, provided surprising evidence in a recent interview on NPR’s Ted Talks. Fraser researches what's real and what's selective when it comes to human memory and crime. He focuses on the fallibility of human memory and encourages a more scientific approach to trial evidence. He has testified in criminal and civil cases throughout the U.S. in state and federal courts. In 2011 Fraser was involved in the retrial of a 1992 murder case in which Francisco Carrillo was found guilty and sentenced to two life sentences in prison.

Fraser and the team that hired him staged a re-enactment of the night in question, and they showed the testimonies that had put Carrillo in jail were unreliable. After 20 years in jail for a crime he didn't commit, Carrillo was free. Not only were the testimonies of the eyewitnesses questionable, what they said they saw had no bearing whatsoever on reality.

The genius of Faulkner – part Hindu, part Descartes – was that he was never troubled by what was or what is; but only interested in what may have been or what could be.  Thomas Sutpen did what he did, fathered whom he fathered, and came to an unhappy end because of his ambition; but those whose lives were affected by him could only remember what he seemed to be.  A story of misjudgments, misapprehensions, and ignorant ambition can also be read as one of inevitable admixture of truth and untruth, fiction and non-fiction. While logic may enable one to appreciate the steps to eliminating logical thought, it can lead to nowhere on its own.

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Not only has objectivity been debunked by philosophers, psychologists, and artists; but also by physicists.  Heisenberg famously concluded that reality – fact, the absolute – was nothing but a matter of perception.
In quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle, also known as Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, is any of a variety of mathematical inequalities asserting a fundamental limit to the precision with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle, known as complementary variables, such as position x and momentum p, can be known simultaneously.
In other words one can never know how fast a particle is travelling and where it is located at the same time.  Reality – or at least some semblance of objectivity – is determined by which axis of perception we choose to use.  Do we want to know where the particle is or how fast it is travelling?

When politics are added to this metaphysical mix, the result is a three-ring circus.    There are no such things as facts to begin with – only presentations of subjective reality – but self-serving politicians sell their perceptions as fact to voters who want to believe them.  The collusion, the complicity between the fake news purveyor and the fake news consumer is complete.

If this were not enough to whirl objectivity on a merry-go-round of fantasy and illogical hopefulness, enter the media.  Although the New York Times, the old newspaper of record, champion of objectivity and factual reporting, still holds on to this fantasy, its editors are committed to a political agenda.  So are the editors of Fox News, and both preach to the choir. 

The Left hates Fox News and the Right hates the New York Times because of what they see as fake news, distortion, and revenue-driven political hysteria.   They are both right, of course.  There is no more factual truth on the networks than anywhere else on the planet; so why the fuss?

All of us need personal identity, and the current wave of protests, marches, banners, slogans, and political electioneering are more means of validating that identity than accomplishing any specific social agenda. It feels good to howl at ‘systemic racism’ and by so doing to burnish one’s political credentials and far easier than to address the persistently high rates of murder, violence, and social dysfunction in black inner cities. Marches for women’s rights, the environment, and for distribution of wealth feel good.  There is camaraderie, brother- and sisterhood, and a happy mood of belonging.  Far be it for these marchers to let facts get in the way of commitment.

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All of which is to say that facts don’t matter, only the perception of them does.   Given this factual free-for-all, elections are always the greatest circus shows on earth, now more than ever.  The issue of fake news has been raised and brought to the fore by Donald Trump, and the side show has already begun.  Bearded ladies are just teasers and the most outrageous, impossible, and unbelievable freaks are about to be onstage – even before the big tent opens its flaps.

We do have to thank Trump for all this.   Never before has there been such a showman, carny barker, and trapeze artist in the White House.  Trying to pin him down to facts, as his opponents have tried unsuccessfully to do for four years, will be an act to watch. Yes, yes, the election is serious business, or at least is supposed to be; but how can it be with this master vaudevillian running again? How can it be when all the Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds, roller coasters, and three ring circus events of American politics will be going on all at once?

Facts? Who needs them?

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